An absolute phrase is a group of words that forms part of a sentence, to which it doesn’t need a conjunction to join. It consists of a subject or a noun, a participle, and a modifier, but it does not have a finite verb. Without a finite verb, an absolute phrase cannot stand alone as a complete sentence. The participle can be a past participle or present participle, which may not be present in an absolute phrase.
An absolute phrase functions as a modifier of an independent clause (main clause) or entire sentence, and in doing so gives further information. It is separated by a comma, and its removal does not affect the grammar of the sentence.
Examples of absolute phrases shown in bold.
- His knife in hand, the deranged man threatened to slit the policeman’s throat.
(knife = noun; his, in hand = modifiers)
- The girls standing side by side, they sang the national anthem loudly together.
(girl = noun; standing = participle; side by side = modifier)
- The putrid smell of the carrion having attracted a group of vultures, we decided to spend the day taking photographs of the birds.
(In the sentence, the absolute phrase the putrid smell of the carrion having attracted a group of vultures is followed by a comma, and consists of the noun smell modified by the participial phrase having attracted a group of vultures.)
An absolute phrase may come at the beginning, in the middle (between the subject and the verb), or at the end of a sentence.
- Their mouths uttering prayer for lasting world peace, the long-bearded cult members gathered on the beach.
- The long-bearded cult members, their mouths uttering prayer for lasting world peace, gathered on the beach.
- The long-bearded cult members gathered on the beach, their mouths uttering prayer for lasting world peace.
Converting an absolute phrase into a complete sentence
This requires a change or addition of the/a verb and an addition of a conjunction to form a compound sentence. As can be seen, an absolute phrase needs to be attached to a complete sentence.
- A dark shadow appearing from behind a tree, Jane and her sister screamed and ran.
- A dark shadow appeared from behind the tree, so Jane and her sister screamed and ran.
- The escaped prisoner still at large in the town, its residents shut their doors tight.
- The escaped prisoner was still at large in the town, and the residents shut their doors tight.
- The politician has many bad habits, lying being one of them.
- The politician has many bad habits and lying is one of them.